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How to not fuck up your thumbnails – a YouTube Tutorial

Moin.

When browsing YouTube, I find that a lot of good content has kinda mediocre thumbnails, and more often than not, gets very few views as a result of it. So, I wrote this guide to help you with them.

Thumbnails, Titles and descriptions together work like a poster: The thumbnail there to grab your attention with its visuals first and foremost, the title is there to be interesting and to tell you what that attention-seeking visual is about, and the description contains useful information – on a poster, it’d be where and when the event happens, on a video, it typically is important links or additional clarification to the title.

Your video can be the best video ever made, but if it has an uninteresting thumbnail, nobody will watch it.

So with that in mind, here’s some things I often see which really don’t work at all, and some tips on how to improve them:

Don’t repeat the title in the thumbnail

Your thumbnail and title are always being shown together. There really is no need to repeat it, especially not word for word. It may be useful to paraphrase a few words from the title in the thumbnail if those words on their own are attention-grabbing, but entire titles generally aren’t attention-grabbing, especially not if they’re search engine optimized.

GOOD: A part of the title is being paraphrased in the thumbnail. Now imagine how this thumbnail would look like if it had the full title and the fortnite logo in there as well. It follows the rule of thirds.
BAD: An extraordinary lazy thumbnail, featuring nothing BUT the title.

Don’t just use the default game art and a number in your thumbnails.

There’s two problems with this: For one, the default game art is just that. Default. It’s being used by anyone on this planet who makes a video about this game, so it doesn’t help you stand out at all. For another, the numbers don’t help you in the thumbnail either. Your viewers don’t have a mental model of “ah yes, last time I watched part #193, can’t wait for #194”, they’re just watching your video (hopefully!) and looking for the “watched” indicator YouTube gets them. And the number in the thumbnail doesn’t even help with SEO as thumbnails aren’t searchable. On top of that, a number also isn’t attention grabbing, but that doesn’t really matter anymore here as the rest of your thumbnail isn’t either if you use the default game art.

So, don’t use the default game art for all your thumbnails, instead make your own thumbnails which are distinct from each other.

BAD: The same thumbnail everywhere. Note that some of these videos do have fairly high view counts, but that’s because they are titled after the game missions, so people stuck on the mission could find the video (SEO). The numbers don’t add anything to it though; note how the video without a mission title only has 7 views.
GOOD: Different thumbnails for each video. The similarity between the thumbnails helps showing that they belong together and are a series. They follow mostly the rule of center.

Make it mobile friendly

While you make your thumbnail on a big screen in Photoshop or something, it’s being shown in quite a small resolution to your viewers, especially for those coming from search and those on mobile. So when making thumbnails, zoom out until it’s 10% of the original size (or half as wide as your phone is in portrait mode) – if you can still read everything and recognize what it’s about, it’s a good thumbnail, if it isn’t, you’ll probably need to enlarge some things.

This also means that you can’t really have too much on-screen, as it all needs to be quite large. As a rule of thumb (haha), having more than 4 elements in your thumbnail probably is too much (elements being people, items, words, etc.)

BAD: A thumbnail which would look somewhat okay on a big resolution, but just doesn’t in the tiny format that you see on YouTube.
GOOD: Only 3 elements: The dude, a minecraft watch, and a very simple minecraft world background. This thumbnail even works at <50px width, it’s that legible. It also follows the rule of thirds.

Saturate it! Up the contrast!

Thumbnails only need to grab attention, so they don’t need to be the most realistic or aesthetically pleasing images. Which means that in general, whatever source image you have, you can just increase saturation to the max and maybe add some more contrast as well and have your thumbnail stand out more than what you started with.

Example: Cranked up the saturation to the max and increased the contrast by a bit for a thumbnail in GIMP. It’s not true to the original and the clouds are starting to look weird, but it is quite a lot more catchy. It follows the rule of thirds.

Composition

For thumbnail composition, normal photography rules apply: Try to apply the rule of thirds, at least in one axis, to make things look nicer. As a result of that, you’ll also automatically get enough head room and lead room, probably. Shot composition is an entire topic on its own which has been covered by many people who are more competent than I am, so you’ll find a lot more on this elsewhere.

For examples for this, look around the other examples given here. I wrote next to them which compositional rules they follow.

One thing to keep in mind though is that there’s the timestamp in the lower right corner, so avoid putting anything important in there.

BAD: Even the big ones make mistakes. I wonder what the impossible Pu is.

Idea: Make the thumbnail before the video

A lot of gaming videos are made by the creator first recording a few hours of footage and then trying to squeeze that together into 10-ish minutes of actually entertaining and coherent content, and after that, title and thumbnails are decided. And while this certainly works, you can also go about it from the other side: Start with making a catchy title and thumbnail, and then think about what the video for that would look like, and subsequently try to record footage which matches this vision.

Overall

Making thumbnails is a very important part of making YouTube videos. They aren’t something that can be slapped together in 5 minutes, you’ll actually need to put in some effort into making them clickable if you want people to actually watch your videos.

I hope these tips have helped you. If you have further questions, or other tips you’d like to share, please share them in the comments!

Further reading

1 thought on “How to not fuck up your thumbnails – a YouTube Tutorial”

  1. Pingback: How to get clicks on YouTube thumbnails: The AIDA model | Koytek Wattenberg Media

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